Stepping in front of a live audience all alone is a pressure-packed moment for any stand-up comedian, but no one seems to handle it worse than Bob Goldthwait. Wavering between what appears to be incapacitating stage fright and drug-induced hysteria, Goldthwait delivers his lines in a choked, trembling voice that regularly erupts into shrieks of agony. "Thank you very . . . thank you very . . . thaaaarrrrgggghhhh!" were the first words from his mouth in a recent HBO special taped at Manhattan's Bottom Line. Two or three more half-finished sentences followed, then an angry shout of defiance: "I never masturbated in my life!"
"Crazy time" is what Johnny Carson calls it when the comedy gets a bit weird on the Tonight show. But the real crazies rarely make it to Carson's stage. Goldthwait did have one Tonight appearance a year ago, when Joan Rivers was guest host, and some of his offbeat contemporaries can occasionally be seen in such hipper network venues as Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. But increasingly, the showcase for innovative comic talent is cable, the Off-Broadway of TV comedy.
Cable's pay channels -- primarily HBO, Showtime and Cinemax -- early on discovered comedy as a fertile source of original programming. With no network censors to contend with, stand-up comics had virtually free rein in language and subject matter. Comedy concerts featuring everyone from Rodney Dangerfield to Eddie Murphy quickly became staples of the cable schedule. Comedy series inevitably came next. Some, like Showtime's Brothers and HBO's 1st & Ten, have been only marginally different from routine network fare. But HBO's Not Necessarily the News, now in its fifth year, offers welcome dollops of topical (if frequently toothless) political satire. Freshest of all is the engaging It's Garry Shandling's Show on Showtime, an unexpected hit that has just won a renewal for three more years. Meanwhile, the Cinemax Comedy Experiment has served as the umbrella for an array of inventive comedy specials. The best so far this year: Chris Elliott's Action Family, which skewered the cliches of two TV genres, private-eye dramas and sitcoms, by yoking them into one ludicrously mismatched half hour.
The budding stars of cable's alternative comedy scene, however, are a new group of performers who are pushing the limits of the stand-up genre. Traditional stand-up comedians, from Alan King through Jay Leno, have usually presented themselves as normal folks, people like you and me who happen to have funny things to say about dating or television or life in New York City. The new gang appear onstage as determined misfits -- sometimes menacing, sometimes pathetic, always glaringly out of place. One of the quirkiest is Emo Philips, 31, a waiflike creature with a Prince Valiant haircut who floats onto the stage like some fugitive from Mother Goose and talks in a limp, languorous singsong. The star of a recent HBO concert, he shows a fondness for whimsical absurdities ("I'm not as good a swimmer as I used to be -- thanks to evolution"), but his material is not quite strong enough to overcome the monotony of his presentation.